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Illinois is competitive with anyone. It’s time to win those big games

All of the Illini have raised their level of play recently.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

TCR Contributor CJ Jackson is a former member of the Illinois Basketball team, playing for the Illini from 2005-09.

If you don’t already believe that this Illini team has real potential to be special by now, I don’t know what will convince you. For some odd reason, losing Terrence Shannon Jr. for the time being actually made the team better in some ways. How so?

Do you ever see games at any level where the star goes down with an injury or some unforeseen reason they aren’t able to play? Then, all of a sudden, the guys who typically fit into a role around the star explode and you see them do things and make plays that you didn’t know they had the capacity to do? Sure you have.

That’s exactly what has happened to the Illini. If somebody would have told you a month ago that the Illini would be playing a one-possession ball game down the stretch in Mackey Arena against the No. 1 team in the country WITHOUT their star player who brings 20+ points per game, you’d never believe it. Yet, that was the case. Players stepped up and made plays when it was needed the most.

Realistically this shouldn’t be too shocking being how much the depth of Brad Underwood’s team has been praised all season long. We’ve seen big games from Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier, and Coleman Hawkins with big scoring streaks from Luke Goode, Justin Harmon, and Dain Dainja. The best part about this roster is its belief that it can. We’ve gone into some hostile environments and come out with a chance to win big games.

Playing in Mackey Area with the Boilers sitting at No. 1 in the country is a hell of a task for any team not named Purdue. Add in the rivalry between Illinois and Purdue, but a top-ten showdown and the Illini missing their best player is as hostile as it gets. We saw the nerves flare by starting the game off 20-4 over the first 8.5 minutes of the game. But we responded exceptionally well and had a chance towards the end which is what matters. We’ve seen crazy finishes in March but they all started with simply being close enough at the end to make a miraculous play.

This year has been a heck of a ride thus far. And with Big Ten play just getting started, it’s only going to get better.

Illinois will be in the conversation for Big Ten champs when it’s all said and done. With the grit and resilience they’ve shown so far, we can feel confident in that. Remember, our only 3 losses have come by way of the current No. 1, No. 5, and No. 11 teams in the nation.

Each and every one of those games we were right there with a chance.

Now we have to start actually winning some of those games and we can all be proud of what’s to come in March.